When the sixties ended, the weather changed. Fierce heat began in spring and kept rising. Through August, Santa Ana winds thrashed off the desert, knocking over cars in the mountains. They blew the smog out to sea but left something darker. Old nightmares returned. That summer a close friend overdosed on heroin. A grenade in Vietnam wasted my cousin Ward’s leg. And in the hottest winds of August, a gang butchered Sharon Tate and five of her friends. Then a couple named La Bianca lay mutilated in their kitchen, and when the Manson family got exposed, two of them were girls we knew.
Denise wanted out of California. She said the Midwest could be a simpler, safer place. But I played guitar in a rock and blues band. After three years rehearsing in a basement we were finally booking jobs, and now a guy from Zap records had seen us and asked for a tape. So I wouldn’t leave. Where Denise used to muse about our future together, now she even talked of moving on her own.
One morning in October, she said we ought to forget our troubles for a day in Disneyland. We took the grocery money and inched north along the freeways in our old Chevy van with bald tires and burnt-out brakelights, hoping the place wouldn’t be crowded, since tourists should’ve fled California, away from the heat and murders, while locals stayed home pointing rifles at the door. Yet they all were there, hordes of them, wiggling, licking ice cream bars as they pressed through the chutes. Perhaps Manson’s capture had released them, or maybe Disneyland looked safer than home. Here you could laugh at the witches and ghouls. But I didn’t feel very safe. People kept staring at us. Denise appeared cherubic while I was tall, hairy, and since I had taken a capsule of mescaline and we’d smoked on the drive, I probably looked crazed. Yet where there are giant ducks and fairies, you don’t expect to get stared at.
I stood in lines playing mind games, trying to levitate and make people disappear out of the line ahead. When Denise let a family cut in front of us, I poked her and grumbled.
She whispered, “Lay off. They want to be with their friends and they came all the way from Denmark.”
We rocketed through space, crashed little cars into each other, rode a putt-putt boat through Utopias where all the world’s children prove identical except for their color and clothes. We spun in big teacups until our guts churned. Finally I talked Denise into retreating to Tom Sawyer’s island. I wanted to hide from the heat and crowds, underneath a boulder.
So there we were, peacefully in line when a troop of Boy Scouts all turned and stared at me.
They stood on a raft from Tom Sawyer’s island. Except that a few were darker, they looked like young Nazis in khaki shorts and all. I had a twitch of foreboding. Then the idea of getting spooked by Boy Scouts made me giggle. I put my arm around Denise. She was sweating and her T-shirt clung to her breasts. I told myself those boys were admiring her nipples and snug red shorts, though all the eyes still looked aimed at me.
As they swarmed off the raft, marched up the ramp, and pushed into the crowd, not for a second did the Scouts quit staring. They encircled Denise and me, cutting us off from the line. By instinct I stepped back against the cable that held me from splashing into the Mississippi, and I tried to glare them down but they seemed a legion. My vision kept shifting from one pair of eyes to another. Some looked rabid, some watery, blinking. Others flashed in the sun.
Denise grabbed my arm. “Hey,” she said petulantly, “you guys knocked us out of line.”
From behind me one of them bellowed, “Murderer!”
I wheeled around but got stopped halfway by a finger aimed like a gun at my face. The kid had red hair, freckles, squinty eyes. He snarled, “You’re Charles Manson.”
Then a boy with no teeth yelled, “Who let him out?”
“He’s on bail, stupid,” a Dumbo-eared kid shouted. One in the rear said that judges were crooks and a boy with his cap on sideways hollered, “I betcha them bald girls broke him out.”
In confusion, I looked at Denise. She was staring like everybody else, including by now the whole crowd behind the Boy Scouts. Dads in beanies, Arabs with purple shaded eyes, cheeks pinked with rouge, faces from all the world, sharp like beaks, Huckleberry Finn, a Chinese man with a burr haircut, heads bowed in shame.
I tried telling myself this wasn’t real, since nothing was, except energy. Still my heart raced and white noise filled my brain. I tried to hear music. I panted through my nose, fixed my eyes straight ahead, and began to walk. The scouts and everybody parted, as I walked out of there through a corridor of leers and silly, warped faces.
I heard Denise behind me declaring, “You guys are crazy. He’s a foot taller than Manson. And ten years younger. His name’s Otis and he’s a peaceful man.”
Dark shapes rose in front of me, as I heard Denise yell, “Manson will never get out of jail, and I bet you kids spoiled Otis’s whole day.”
Ahead loomed two cops, one mustachioed, with a bell-shaped hat, fat blue suit, shiny buttons. The other was a thick, hard, western sheriff. If they searched me, I was doomed, but I couldn’t run when all around me stood a lynch mob. So I stopped, cold and trembling, leaned to my right and slightly forward, and with hands on my hips I gazed without blinking into the face of each lawman.
Finally they turned and walked toward a giant chipmunk beside the popcorn wagon.
Denise probably thought I’d wait while she finished bawling out the crowd, but I kept walking, gazing at my sandals and with hardly a thought except to get someplace alone in this hideous world. I glanced up just enough to guide myself through another crowd and skirt along the edge of the lines before the Haunted House, where I was going to find some darkness. I ducked under a cable. As I moved to the front of the line, I only needed to show the people my face and they stepped aside.
It felt like I’d done some unthinkable crime, too vicious to remember, and been expelled from humankind. An organ inside me played a grievous hymn. I passed through the entrance. Nobody asked for my ticket. I turned left and marched into a room full of ghost laughter and portraits on the walls. One of them changed from a cat to a Southern belle and then to a withered hag. There was no exit, except to go back. I whirled around just as the door slammed shut. The ghosts laughed hysterically. A second later, the floor began to quiver and suddenly dropped out from under me. My heart imploded. In a vision, I plunged all the way into Hell, yet landed softly on my feet, near a door which I slugged open with my shoulder and staggered through. To my left were little cars on a track, but I ran, staying close to the wall, dodging the busts of old patriarchs, past a door beneath an exit sign and through a ballroom where banshees wailed and green ectoplasm swirled, to another passway and another door. I fumbled for the handle, frantically turned it, heaved with my shoulder, and burst into a hallway full of amber light. Halfway down the hall, I sat on the floor, covered my eyes with my arms, and waited for the end. But lots of time passed and the end didn’t come. Then I swore to go straighter and be kinder to people. Especially Denise. If a record deal happened, I’d treat her to a honeymoon.
I sat there far longer than I knew. It took a long time just to be positive I wasn’t Charles Manson.
Outside, the sky was grayer and the heat less foul, easier to breathe. It seemed fright had boiled the mescaline away. Still I walked carefully, my head lowered, eyes raising only to peer through breaks in the crowd. I found Denise between Frontierland and the Amazon forest, sitting on the root of a giant carob tree.
Her mouth sloped down, her chin crinkled and began to quiver. Then her arms folded tightly across her breasts.
“I was so scared, Otis. For all I knew you might’ve got lynched but I didn’t want to get a cop, with you holding that grass. What could I do?”
I confessed how profoundly those scouts had deranged me. Then we walked to Main Street where a trolley was just pulling out. We jumped it and squeezed onto the bench beside two nuns. Finally Denise looked up kindly, kissed my cheek and took my hand, pressing it against her bare thigh. As we clattered on, I spread my other hand across my eyes, because all along the sidewalk outside the shops and arcades, tourists wearing beaks or large ears pointed cameras at me.
I told Denise we should go to some office and demand our money back, but she said, “You’ll just make a scene, and we’ll lose. You can’t beat Disney. Let’s just get out of this zoo. Hey, and go to the beach for sunset.”
Driving from Disneyland straight to the beach, you can get stalled by 50 stoplights, detours, and a traffic jam some collision has brewed, then you have to search between condos and mini-malls for the ocean. So we cut south on the interstate, bound for the cliffs at Dana Point, a place my cousin Ward and I used to surf.
The Sunday traffic was moderate, slowed to about 30 mph with gaps a few feet long between cars. We edged in and joined the show. Convertibles lurched by, jammed full of erect surfboards and girls who wore mostly sunglasses, on the laps of pretty boys. Delivery men leaned forward over their steering wheels, arms up, shoulders hunched, like riders of the Pony Express. A few lunatics weaved in and out then horns blasted and people cursed each other and shot their fingers around. Denise said, “I think California’s at least as weird as Disneyland.”
For distraction and to lift my spirits, I asked Denise to play our tape, a copy of the demo we’d pieced together for Zap Records. The tape player was cheap, but that didn’t excuse our music. The cut I sang, a fast, Elmore James blues, sounded so heartless I was glad when the batteries failed. My voice wheezed away.
Then we got stuck between a cruiser, Highway Patrol, and a ‘65 Impala lowrider, candy apple red with a twelve-foot antenna that flew the Jolly Roger. The skull wore a head band. Salsa music hooted over the freeway rumble. Heat waves steamed off the car tops. The sun reddened as it sank deeper into the hazy smog that capped the Laguna hills. Then brakes squealed far ahead, and 20 more brakes screeched, each of them closer. When the lowrider’s lights flashed, I stomped the pedal, froze about an inch from his bumper.
Denise and I sat gulping breaths.
A siren tooted, then came the red and blue lights to our rear. I cussed, kicked the fire wall, and grabbed my shirt pocket, for two big joints. Denise wouldn’t help, since she gagged easily. As I crammed them both into my mouth, I got lockjaw. To stall for time, I backed up far enough to edge around the lowrider then made for an exit, straddling the right shoulder at an idle.
“Swallow. Swallow,” Denise pleaded.
But that weed absorbed my saliva and lay there dry as gravel. Still I managed to chomp, and finally to gulp. It squeezed like a tennis ball through a straw, so my throat felt like it was hemorrhaging. The cop pulled over behind, got out, and strode our way.
“Be nice, please,” Denise said. She knew I’d lost my patience, since every month or so I’d get rousted, usually on some pretext such as my van looked just like one stolen a few miles away. Then they’d search for drugs. The last cop made me remove the paneling, a half-hour job.
As I heard the cop’s footsteps, I tried to look nice but eating marijuana made my face pucker. I turned to see him and reeled back—he looked like my cousin Ward, with ruddy skin and grayish eyes.
First he asked for my license and draft card, also Denise’s license, and the registration. He questioned our origins and destination. He asked what kind of work I did and raised his eyes toward the hills when I claimed to be a musician.
The cop turned to Denise, leered a while, and commanded, “Open the back.” He shot a glare and a smile of challenge at me, trying to goad me into saying something he could knock me on the head for, but I didn’t make a sound, not even to protest while he searched the van, slinging our junk all over. Denise stayed with him to help. I scuffed around barefoot through the ice plant telling myself this was no visitation, that God hadn’t sent this certain cop to imply what a drugged, traitorous scoundrel I must be. Lots of men have big noses, ruddy skin, and eyes grayish blue like the cop and Ward, I argued. But something tweaked inside me, and there came the darkest feeling, which I’d only known once before, the week my cousin left for Vietnam. He told me about Vietcong tortures such as the many uses of rats and pits lined with sharp, poisoned sticks. Then his eyes drilled mine, like he’d spotted the enemy.
A few months later, in the only letter he sent me from Vietnam, he wrote, “I’m scared shitless. You’re playing music. So how was Thanksgiving?”
Denise told the cop she had to pee or burst. She must’ve awakened his heart—with a brake light warning and one last sneer, he sent us on our way.
Across the boulevard, beside a 7—11 store, I pulled to an Exxon station self-serve pump. While Denise ran to the ladies room then back to the office for a key, an attendant came and stood close by. His face kept changing colors. I looked away, hurried with the gas and made for the restroom, just wanting to sit in the dark again—until I got there and saw who gaped out from the mirror at me.
It sure wasn’t Otis. With cavernous eyes, sharp bones and a pinched, hungry mouth, it looked like Charles Manson.
I dashed outside then bolted, recklessly, since my head throbbed and I couldn’t see except for moving blurs, across the parking lot and into the 7—11 store. But I couldn’t make out things on the shelves, except large boxes such as diapers. As I wheeled around helplessly, a rescuer came, a small person fringed by a bush of auburn hair. Orphan Annie, I thought, and pinched my eyes. Next Peter Pan could fly in. But she asked what I needed, and as soon as I told her, swiftly she found scissors and Gillette blue blades with a free razor. She rang it up, two dollars even, and aimed me toward the door.
In the parking lot, two cars backed straight at me. I dodged and staggered to the Exxon. By now my vision could focus enough so I spotted Denise inside the van, straightening things. I snuck past her to the men’s room. I threw the sack into the sink and grabbed out the scissors.
The mirror rippled. The face behind it glared mockingly. My left hand trembled while I pulled the hair back into a pony tail. The scissors in my right hand, as I eased them toward the mark, swerved and nearly punctured my ear yet I got them in place, opened their jaws and chopped. A pound of the stuff fell on my back then wafted down to the floor.
I turned to the beard. Pulling it into little tufts, I began whacking and snipping. Before long there remained only stubble. I was scooping hair out of the sink when Denise walked in.
She gasped. She stood with hands on her hips and her eyes misting, while I ran the water hot and lathered my face with mechanics’ soap. Deftly, I guided a razor over hills and valleys and reamed the stuff out of sharp niches. I didn’t even draw much blood.
When the razor slipped from my hand, I looked squarely at the creature who gazed down at me.
For three years I’d worn a beard, a mustache for eight years. Before that, I was a boy. Now I’d gone pale. My cheeks sucked in. The upper lip hung down too long as if to hide big teeth. This fellow looked common, shy like he needed my approval, and sickly as though he might not live very long. A feeble groan issued out of me. Denise came alongside and took my arm. She led me to the john, sat me down. She propped the door open with the waste basket and bent to work picking up hair and things, while I kept still, exhausted, with arms on knees and face in hands, the sweat from my palms burning all that raw skin.
From there on, I let Denise drive. The sun had deserted us, leaving dusky, warm air that smelled of seaweed and gasoline. I lay in back touching my cropped hair and naked face. My head felt ready to spring off and bounce out of sight down the road. I used both hands to hold it on, while trucks battered us with their tail drafts and the van lurched when Denise hit the brakes, and lights kept sneaking in the window then flashing at me. Each of my senses seemed to split and fly off a different way until only my dimmest self remained, waiting for the end.
Finally I quit waiting and climbed up front. Denise hummed a Nutcracker tune. We crested a rise then looked down on the coast, straight at the mushroom domes of the San Onofre nuclear plant. They glowed orange, backed by the dead-green sea. To the south, from near to far down the beach, Marines bivouaced, their tents in clusters and landing crafts sunk in the tide. Then a great heap of sand exploded. Tanks bounded over the dunes.
But that didn’t stop the surfers who angled in from north of the domes, rising out of the foamy peaks at the line where colors darkened as cool water from the deep met the atomic lagoon. The surfers looked to be on clouds, sky-riding toward the wild glory of heaven.
Sometimes I loved California. But it always faded.
“Too bad the radio’s broken,” Denise said.
I crawled to the rear and lay on the bunk. In dark, behind curtains and sunglasses, things grew quieter. Cars breezed by. Our van’s rear end quit rumbling, and my breath didn’t rasp anymore. For a while I felt lifted and dropped as by waves into their troughs, battered and tossed like plankton. Then it got quiet again. Denise carried me home.
Our place was a converted garage beside an alley in the town where we both had been raised. It was only one room plus the bath, the patio, and garden.
I phoned my aunt to ask about Ward, expecting her to answer curtly, but she sounded friendly this time, as though she could tell from my voice that I now looked civilized. She said my cousin was learning to walk on his prosthesis, that he’d be home by Christmas, and she’d give him my love.
Denise volunteered to fix dinner, so I took my Hummingbird guitar outside, sat on the table and played. I picked some high note runs which came out stiff and slow, as usual. So I turned to a new song, rhythm and blues. My part attempted to sound like horns, an ascending harmony line using three-note chords. Six or eight times I tried it, but the tangle of my fingers only got worse. To redeem myself, I chose “Shake a Hand,” which Little Richard had done, the tune I sang best with our band because the notes fit my voice and the lyrics moved me. Yet I noticed the voice go hollow and flatten. It just couldn’t rise with the feeling that lifted me. I stopped in the middle of the last verse. I stared at my reflection in the pick guard. The stranger raised his eyebrows at me.
When Denise came out with our tacos of Swiss chard and sour cream, I packed the guitar away then sat wondering if I’d lost my gift for music. And when the truth came, I groaned deeply.
Denise asked what was wrong. So I confessed, “I just realized what a lousy musician I am.”
“No, Otis,” she crooned.
“I bet that Zap guy was drunk. When he hears me on the tape, he’ll gag.”
She touched my chin, lifted it higher. “Maybe it just sounded not so good on account of all that grass you ate. Honest, you’re pretty good. Good enough. Remember when the Beach Boys first started, you surfer guys used to pelt them with eggs and stuff. Look what happened to them.”
“I don’t want to get pelted. I want to do something good,” I groaned. “Find out what I can do. Maybe even who I am.”
Then I couldn’t talk anymore. I got an urge to go lie in the dark forever. But to fight catatonia, I stood up and walked to the alley, then cut east toward town. Straight ahead, about halfway up from the horizon, a few stars blinked reddish then burnt back to silvery, yet remained brighter than the others. I wondered if they could be pointing our way—to the Midwest or beyond.
Denise appeared beside me. I stared at her face, with the deep eyes and parted mouth that, not always, but sometimes, spoke just the right words. I touched her hair, her neck then the small of her back, and slid my hand down under her shorts to rest on her behind. It was cool, like always.
“You’re Otis,” she whispered, and pressed me close to her side.